Thursday, January 19, 2017

Gonna make you, make you, make you notice: The musical constancy of the Pretenders

Talk of the town: The Pretenders.
That's Chrissie Hynde's face staring back at you on this blog's header. I've written about Hynde and the Pretenders here on more than one occasion. So it was only a matter of time before I wrote at greater length about her music and influence. She's provided me with a lifetime of deeply personal music to which I can relate to and also be constantly surprised by. There are several other artists, writers, and musicians whose work I've been equally invested in over the years, but my affection for Hynde and the Pretenders goes back to my formative years and is so intertwined with my life that it's almost impossible to separate the two.

Their debut album, Pretenders, was one of the first rock albums I ever owned and, as I like telling anyone within ear shot, a stone-cold perfect album that I've been comparing other great records to ever since. It's a masterpiece and one of the most impressive debuts in rock history. It contains everything you need to know about the Pretenders, everything they do better than anyone else, and everything they would continue to explore and build off of in the years following. There are other records that I love as much as Pretenders, but none that I love more. I first owned it on cassette in the early '80s and for a long time either it or their greatest hits album were all I listened to. Years later, the CD versions would be two of my most played albums as well. Lately I find myself returning often to the Pretenders on Spotify. While writing this I played their music constantly, including the entire first album sourced from the vinyl on YouTube. No matter the musical format or what stage in life I'm at, I never tire of the Pretenders.

If you've ever spent any measurable time with me over the years, say, at a tavern while having a few libations, then I've likely declared either "Brass in Pocket" or "Mystery Achievement" to be the finest rock song ever written. Bold statements like that are meant to be provocative (especially when uttered in bars), so take it with a grain of salt. The point is, I enthuse about the Pretenders on a regular basis, championing their songs to anyone and everyone. While my wife and several of my close friends love the band's music, I'm still likely the biggest Pretenders fan they know, an honor that I proudly accept.

For many, Chrissie Hynde is the Pretenders. Since the beginning and through various lineups, she's remained their primary songwriter and the public face of the band. For many of us she was our first rock crush. I was only in the initial years of elementary school during the early 1980s, when the Pretenders were huge. I wasn't sure what attracted me to her back then, but clearly her voice and her uniquely cool presence were likely factors. Later on as a teenager I started to pay close attention to her lyrical phrasing and subtle humor and my interest only deepened.

I gotta have some of your attention, give it to me.
She was a revelation. In "Brass In Pocket" she sang about how special she was and that she needed your attention. She was going to make you notice her, no doubt about it. Well, I certainly noticed. There was something mysterious about her as well, with her bangs hanging down low over her face and pouty lips pursed defiantly as if to say, "Yeah, so what?" She was one of the first artists I discovered who had attitude, and as I had none at that time, she definitely helped me to develop some of my own over the years.

In those pre-internet days, we were attracted to the mystery of artists like Hynde, Bowie, and Prince, to name a few. They always left just enough room for us to fill in the blanks, and we used our imaginations to flesh out who they were and what they represented to us. I didn't know much about Hynde besides her music until I was much older. During those years my relationship to her and the band was strictly through the music and their videos. This helped cement my fandom because I was able to insert my own meanings alongside Hynde's intentions. The Pretenders became a musical totem for me, a constant source of inspiration that I could carry with me—in a Walkman, a portable CD player, or an iPhone—wherever I went.

Hynde's voice is one of the most distinctive in modern music. She has a talent for conveying strength and vulnerability at the same time. Her vocals are like her personality: full of attitude and heart. Her feelings and emotions are front and center in her songs, with lyrics that are often tender and cynical at the same time—tender towards her loves and passions, cynical towards the world that's trying to tear them down. She's written numerous songs about growing up in Northeast Ohio and several about her adult life in London, with a mixture of heartfelt nostalgia and brutal truthfulness in both cases. This duality is an essential element of her appeal—Hynde isn't afraid to be raw and honest about her feelings and opinions, both in song and in interviews. Instead, she lets you see right inside her heart by laying bare her true feelings. For all her reputation as one of the most legendarily tough women in rock, her songs are consistently thoughtful and sincere. She paints beautiful pictures with her words and never hesitates to express complicated emotions, even if they aren't always flattering.

That's the look I was telling you about: "Yeah, so what?"
With the release of the band's debut album in 1980, she represented a new perspective in rock music—namely that of the fiercely independent late-twentieth century woman. Patti Smith and Debbie Harry had recently laid the groundwork and Hynde grabbed this torch and added her own unique voice to the tradition. She wrote about being a lover, a mother, a friend, a bandmate, a citizen of the world, and all while exposing the conflicting nature of these various roles that women have to play.

There's a depth to her songs, one that grows over time and through repeat listening. Hynde writes songs that are just broad enough to appeal to many while still remaining intimately personal as well, allowing the listener to find his or her own meaning in them. For instance, "2,000 Miles" was intended as an ode to the late guitarist James Honeyman-Scott but most listeners tend to see it as a story about long-distant love. Due to its allusions to the holidays and wintertime, it's also become a Christmas season radio staple. To this fan, its meaning has always derived from a blend of all of these elements, along with some personal experiences of my own mixed in as well. Hynde is one of the masters of pop songwriting, mixing the deeply personal and the widely accessible, to create songs that powerfully resonate with listeners..

The classic lineup featured Hynde on vocals and guitar, Honeyman-Scott on lead guitar, Richard Fardon on bass, and Martin Chambers on drums. This incarnation of the band recorded what are, for my money, two of the best rock records ever made, Pretenders and Pretenders II. Side note: I miss the days when rock bands titled their records like movie sequels. Together, these albums form an utterly unique one-two punch of early '80s post-punk, new wave excellence.

Mystery achievement, you're so unreal: Classic Chrissie Hynde.
Hynde revealed in her recent memoir Reckless that the band's famously strange time signatures were a happy accident, resulting from her lack of experience with songwriting or reading music. This led to a distinctive sound for the band, one that stood apart from their contemporaries and helped launch their career. The first two albums are loaded with all-time classics, including "Precious," "The Wait," "Mystery Achievement," "Kid," "Brass in Pocket," "Message of Love," "Day After Day," "The English Roses," and "Talk of the Town." Honeyman-Scott was the band's not-so-secret weapon, a true guitar virtuoso with a habit of unleashing absolutely mind-bending solos. He was a tremendous talent and a huge inspiration to Hynde in her songwriting. Their work together is pure magic. His death after the second album left a huge hole in both the band's lineup and their hearts. Soon after Honeyman-Scott's death, Fardon also died, another victim of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

The band continued on, with two new members, still managing to record a spectacular and worthy follow-up to Pretenders II with Learning to Crawl. That record continued their hot streak and contained some of Hynde's most moving songs to date, including "Back On the Chain Gang," which put into words Honeyman-Scott would forever remain a central figure in her thoughts and career. Since then, the band has continued to record and tour to this day. Along the way they've made some truly good albums, and even if they haven't equaled the majesty of their first three, they're still wonderful records. Every Pretenders album contains at least two or three eminently catchy songs that you'll never forget, nor tire of hearing.


"Brass in Pocket" was the single that really broke the band, debuting at number one on the UK Singles Chart in 1980. It's still their best-know song, and remains unlike anything else in the rock cannon before or since. It's infectious beat, with an effortless slow groove laid down by the band, makes you want to live inside of its sound forever. The video was one of the most played and memorable videos of the early days of MTV. I was absolutely transfixed watching Hynde play the diner waitress. She played the part to the hilt, sadly pining for Fardon while he cavorted with other women who we all knew couldn't compete with Chrissie. The video cast Hynde as the wallflower, the timid girl in the corner, just longing for someone to notice her. Yet the lyrics were anything but timid, with their forthright declarations in her abilities to grab your attention. With charm and moxie, she tells you exactly what she's going to do to make you, make you notice her—which includes using style, imagination, and certain body parts to lure you in.

While the video is fairly simple and rudimentary in production and technique—these were still the nascent days of music videos, remember—it had fun with a cliched scenario, that of the shy girl pining for a guy who'll never notice how great she is, by brilliantly confusing matters when paired with Hynde's playfully aggressive and forthright lyrics. Hynde defiantly and emphatically announced herself with this song, showcasing what would make her one of music's best songwriters and an icon of cool for decades. She sings the song with a mixture of supreme confidence and desperate longing, "'Cause I gonna make you see/There's nobody else here/No one like me," and a generation quickly agreed—there was no one else remotely like her. Hearing "Brass in Pocket" for the first time was enough to make me sit up and take notice of the Pretenders. After that, I was along for the ride (while "Detroit leaning," of course), even though I was far too young to fully understand why yet. That would come later. All I knew then was there was no one in music (not to mention my life) like Chrissie Hynde, and her songs spoke to me in new and exciting ways.



Raw and honest.
I can still remember hearing "Night In My Veins" on the car radio during college and feeling a sense of pride that Hynde and the band were still out there making smart, hook-laden songs just like they always had. During those years, I could gauge my life against their music as I moved up through school and into young adulthood. Their debut was released when I was only five, so by the time I'd reached high school and college in the '90s, their music had basically always been there. The soundtrack of my life.

Their hits album stayed tucked inside my Walkman for long stretches on a regular basis, never rotating out for long. Their music led me to Elvis Costello and Blondie, among others. So, hearing "Night In My Veins" back in 1994 felt both reassuring and energizing. The bands I was worshiping at the time, like Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden, were reaching the peak of their powers and influence, but here was a band I'd known and loved since my earliest days that could still kick out the jams with the best of them. Not only was I invigorated by "Night In My Veins" but also energized by the notion that life has constants that we can draw inspiration from and measure ourselves against. Hynde and the Pretenders have been a constant for a lot of us for several decades now. Certainly I can't imagine my life without their music being a part of it.

The Pretenders popularity waxed and waned in the ensuring years. There were times after college where they dropped off my radar for stretches, but never for long and I'd always find my way back to their music when I needed it most. As an adult my connection to their music only strengthened, as I could now relate more than ever to their songs about love, loss, life, and staying true to yourself through it all.


On a vacation to Italy about a decade ago, they were the band I listened to on long car rides through the country side, or on a ferry ride to Calabria. I immersed myself in their music again, in a way I hadn't in a few years at that point. I was struck by how relevant it remained to me, and in new and interesting ways. I saw things in their music that I hadn't noticed when I was a kid. The songs might be perfect representations of Hynde's punk rock attitude and trademark pout, but she's also singing about honest emotions and isn't afraid to profess her love for what matters most to her. Listen to "Message of Love," her ode to the idea that love can—and should—conquer all. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, Hynde hits at the truth behind how we often find connections with each other in the midst of a chaotic world: "Now look at the people/In the streets, in the bars/We are all of us in the gutter/But some of us are looking at the stars." She acknowledges how difficult prioritizing love can be—"Life is unkind/We all fall but we keep gettin' up/Over and over and over and over and over and over." It's lyrics like this that have lodged in my brain and make the band essential listening for me over the years. Hynde's words and music have burrowed into my heart and soul for the long haul, and at some point over the years I realized that counts for an awful lot. Why wouldn't I want to return frequently to music that makes me feel this alive? After all, life is short and it's best to use the time we have to surround ourselves with things that we feel passionately about.

As I mentioned here previously, I finally saw the Pretenders several years ago. It was a long time coming, as I was far too young to have seen them in their prime. The latest lineup still featured the only two living members from their heyday, Hynde and Chambers. They played nearly every song I wanted to hear, along with surprisingly good new tracks. I needn't have been surprised though; Hynde's songwriting has been nothing if not consistent over the years. Hearing these songs, which had been an important part of my life for so long in a live setting was completely transformative. These were some of the first grown-up songs I ever connected with as a child. They helped expand my horizons and ask questions I hadn't previously thought about (like "Why is life so complicated for adults?").

A musical constant: The Pretenders.
Approaching sixty, Hynde still brought the same energy and charisma from those classic early years. She owned the crowd that night, had us wrapped around her finger from the first note until the last. To say that I'd fulfilled a decades-old wish by seeing them that night would be an understatement. All of my cynical notions about bands not possibly remaining essential after their primes were rejected by Hynde and the Pretenders that night. They proved to me once and for all that certain artists do retain what makes them cool and vital, even as they age. I didn't think it was possible to appreciate the Pretenders more than I had over the previous twenty-five years at that point, but that night I realized it most certainly was.

In 2015 Hynde released her first memoir Reckless, which covers her beginnings in Northeast Ohio all the way up to and through those wildly creative and momentous early years of the Pretenders. While reading it I was pleased to find her prose to be just like her lyrics: honest, funny, raw, intelligent, and heartfelt. She explored some of her life's less than flattering moments with the kind of candidness you would expect from her. Like all of us, she falls sometimes but keeps getting back up, over and over. Once again I was reminded that Chrissie Hynde's work remains a constant in my life, one that only becomes more rewarding with the passage of time.

6 comments:

  1. Man! You need to write for Rolling Stone. You clearly love music & your 90s seriea feels like a book, seriously. I loved The Pretenders since Brass in Pocket. That song was a personal anthem for me in my early teenage years as I was figuring out how to give the middle finger to my Catholic school upbringing. Back on the Chain Gang was another fav of mine & was the soundtrack to a relationship I was going thru at the time. Chrissie is a rock goddess. She speaks her mind & doesn't give a shit about the consequences. She is one, fierce female & a true legend! Great work, Michael! 🤘

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    1. Oh, and also to address your '90s series as a book commment: that's actually something I've been considering for several weeks now. I have this nebulous idea that at some point I'll start collecting the pieces into one document and see if I can't string together an essay collection. I don't know, the dream of writing something that would be published in book form is very real, so we'll see how it goes down the road...

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    2. Michael CampochiaroJanuary 19, 2017 at 7:26 AM
      As always, thank you Susan. I am a HUGE music fan, and the Pretenders have been THE constant in my musical education over the years. Chrissie was my first rock crush and I just adore her voice, lyrics, music, everything. I can still remember seeing "Brass in Pocket" on MTV as a wee lad and just being transfixed. I was hooked, then and there.

      I actually submitted this piece months ago to two different websites for consideration. One never replied, argh. The other passed it around to different editors and over a span of months had several emails with me about it...before finally deciding to pass on it. That hurt. So I've sat on it for a few months since and finally decided to just share it here. I needed it to get out into the world!

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  2. Don't get me wrong :-) this is great stuff.
    Look forward to more

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  3. Don't get me wrong :-) this is great stuff.
    Look forward to more

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    1. Thank you 😊 Poke around the site, I bet there's a lot more you'd enjoy if you liked this piece.

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